Here at Church of Peace, we’ve named Twenty Twenty the Year of Caring and Service. On Sundays and Wednesdays during Lent, we’re following Jesus on a tour of caring and serving through the Gospel of Mark. So far, we’ve considered how Jesus notices people through eyes of love and how Jesus heals by restoring us to right relationship. Through this season, we’re striving to follow Jesus’s example in our lives, in this neighborhood. We’re trying to make our actions match his. May we learn to notice people through eyes of love. May we learn to heal by restoring relationships.
With this focus, it would make good sense to celebrate the good deeds that Jesus does. You know —Jesus handing out sandwiches, Jesus welcoming children, Jesus alleviating suffering, Jesus picking up trash. It would make good sense to celebrate the tender kindness of Jesus. Surely, he’s smiling, and respectful, as good-natured as Mister Rogers! If this is what you’re expecting, it sure makes good sense.
Then today we get the scripture Bob just read, and wow. This Jesus is no Mister Rogers. If you’re wondering, how are we supposed to follow Jesus’ example here? Exactly. Thank you for wondering this.
Now even though we have not yet celebrated Palm Sunday, the day when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, today’s story takes place after Jesus has already arrived in the city. It is after he looked around at everything and probably wept. It’s after he cursed a fig tree and tore through the temple flipping over the tables of the money changers. The religious officials were frightened and looking for the opportunity to arrest him.
They had just approached him saying: Tell us, where does your authority come from? Jesus snapped back: You remember my cousin John who was killed by Herod? Tell me, did his baptism come from heaven or earth? They said, There’s no way we can answer that. Well, then I won’t answer you, said the Lord.
Yeah. So it’s like that.
Jesus sat down in front of the temple. A crowd gathered around him including those unanswered officials, including his disciples. That’s when he tells the story we hear today.
First a man planted a vineyard. He put a fence around it, dug a pit for the winepress, built a watchtower… Now immediately, the crowd will remember the passage from Isaiah. According to the prophet, God prepared a vineyard (representing Jerusalem). He dug a pit, built a watchtower, and God expected it to yield grapes, but wild grapes invaded the harvest. This was a metaphor for Jerusalem’s unfaithfulness and cruelty. The song ends with God destroying the vineyard! God had expected justice but instead saw bloodshed. Where there should have been righteousness, instead there was a cry.
Everybody’s remembering that while Jesus is telling a story of another vineyard. This time the owner leases the vineyard to some tenants, and they are terrible. When the owner sends his slave to collect the rent, the tenants kill the slave. The owner tries again —sending a second slave, and again, the tenants kill this man. Finally, the owner makes the inexplicable decision to send his own son whom he loves. Surely they won’t kill the Lord’s son! But that’s exactly what they do.
It’s a problem. Sure sounds like the slaves in the story represent the prophets like John the Baptist who got killed by the world. Sure sounds like the beloved son represents Jesus who knows he’s about to get killed by the world. If you’re wondering, how could God be the vineyard owner who does this to her own slaves and her own son? (And what is God doing having slaves?) Exactly. Thank you for wondering this.
It’s a problem. Then it gets worse. Jesus looks at the crowd and his eyes flash with rage. He tells them when the owner of the vineyard’s beloved son gets killed by these tenants, the owner himself will charge onto the scene! He will destroy the tenants and give the vineyard away.
Jesus is telling the people, when you come for me and you kill me, you better know what’s coming. God will destroy you. He will wipe you out!
Imagine being in the crowd when this went down. You see Jesus is upset! You hear words of revenge sneering out of his mouth. It would be like seeing Jesus haul off and smack a child!
This is not the Jesus we know. You and I would certainly prefer Jesus to keep his professional distance. Where is the holiness that haloed his birth and summoned the angels to their singing? Couldn’t we go back to handing out sandwiches and welcoming children, alleviating suffering and picking up trash… Instead.
In this story, Jesus is getting down into the hole of violence with the rest of us. He’s exposing our own craving for revenge, our own fear of death, our unhealed sorrow for a cousin who got murdered.
If you have ever wished it upon someone that they would rot in hell, Jesus knows what that is. If you have ever felt anger and grief wrap around each other until there’s no way to tell whether your fury is fostering your sorrow or your sorrow is driving your fury, Jesus gets that too. He’s right there. But what does feeling the fullness of grief have to do with following Jesus?
Maybe only everything.
Some of you know Father Gregory Boyle who’s the founder of Homeboy Industries, a ministry that works with former gang members. He says this: “If you’re a stranger to your own wound, you’re going to be tempted to despise the wounded.”
By telling the parable of the terrible tenants, Jesus is making us feel and face our own deep wounds, the violence we have claimed as our own. But what if our own pain does not have to be our liability? What if our grief is precisely what equips us to help others who are grieving? What if our grief is what gives us the authority to speak of hope…
This is something I’ve gotten to hear for myself from inside the rooms of the Twelve Step community. Now please don’t get me wrong. In any journey of recovery, there’s a critical role for professional help —counselors, physicians, social workers— all this help is important. But there’s nothing like the power of someone who says to a room full of people, I have been through what you’re going through, and I can promise you, there’s more to life than the pain you’re feeling right now.
When a person in recovery is sharing her experience with others in recovery, you’ll know she’s telling the truth. She speaks with the authority, not of professionals or experts, but with the authority that comes from her own pain. Could be this is the authority of heaven and earth!
Unless our plans change, on Wednesday, Mary Engholm will be speaking to our church about the work of the Rock Island County Council on Addictions. I hope you will come! I hope you will join me in listening for the possibility that the people who are finding their own way into recovery are helping our community —maybe more than most people might realize.
On the old television show, The West Wing, there’s a touching scene in which Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry, encourages a young Josh Lyman to get counseling after experiencing PTSD from a gunshot. Leo is a recovering addict, and he tells Josh a parable that is very Twelve Step in its wisdom:
A man was walking along when he fell down into a deep hole. He panics; how am I ever going to get out of here? He starts shouting to people up on the street. Soon enough, a doctor walks by, sees him down in the hole, stops, writes a prescription, and throws it down. A little while later, a priest hears him yelling, stops, writes down a prayer, and throws the prayer down the hole.
A little while later, the man’s friend walks by the hole, hears him yelling, and he jumps into the hole too! The man says, “Are you stupid? What are you doing here?! Now we’re both stuck in this hole!” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
I know it’s easy to think of our grief as the force that’s holding us back, but what if it’s not? What if your sorrow is precisely what makes it possible for you to hear someone else who is grieving and to jump down into the hole beside them because see, you’ve been through the worst pain before, you just might know the way out. You have that authority.
Father Gregory Boyle says if you’re a stranger to your own wound, you’re going to be tempted to despise the wounded. And he’s right. And what if it works the other way too? If you’re in tune with your own wound, you’re going to be tempted to befriend the wounded. The compassion that overcomes violence— this compassion comes from feeling the fullness of our own pain, then living through it. The grace in Christ meets the grace in you. The grief in Christ meets the grief in you.
In the scripture Bob read, it is scary to see Jesus lashing out in anguish. He falls down into the anger of humanity, threats of violence are spilling out of his mouth, his deep pain exposes our own. It’s scary and embarrassing, and don’t miss what happened! The LORD our God just jumped into the hole.
We hear our own prayer of panic: “What are you doing here? How can you save us when you’re in this hell too?” Jesus’ face is flushed red with anger and stained from tears. “Yeah,” says the Lord. “It’s just, I’ve been in this hell before, and it doesn’t have to end like this. I know the way out. Come on, follow me.”